My Imaginary Friend


I’m beginning to feel as though I’ve got an imaginary friend. I talk about him all the time, and require my friends and family to listen. I talk to him, although he never replies, and I don’t expect him to. I find him entirely fascinating, and am convinced that he’s uncommonly beautiful and talented, even though I’ve never actually set eyes on him. He has a name; but he didn’t tell me it, I just made it up.

I refer, of course, to my unborn child.

My burgeoning relationship with him has something in common with my relationship with my cat. “She thinks such-and-such,” I say, even though what my cat thinks is one of the great Known Unknowns of my life. Therefore, I feel as though I’m actually being anthropomorphic in the way I talk about my son – even though, if the scans are to be believed, he is quite literally human-shaped.

This, of course, is the way it’s got to be. If parents didn’t talk to their babies as if they could understand, none of us would ever learn to talk. If we weren’t obsessed by them and willing to cater for their every need, the human race would very quickly come to an end. (Which Gaia, beset as she is by her infestation, might deem a Good Thing, but my Selfish Genes wouldn’t agree. See? Anthropomorphism – a game everyone can play.)

I think the pre-birth construction of an imagined relationship is, actually, specific to mothers – in its intensity, at least. It’s the instinctive desire to be close to one’s children. Perhaps it’s partly due to the physical reality of having a small being booting you in the guts every now and then; some fairly intense psychological resetting is necessary in order to make you happy about that.

“Happy Fathers’ Day!” I said to Baby’s Daddy a couple of weekends ago.

“Jumping the gun a bit, aren’t you?” he said.

“You mean the paternity test hasn’t come through yet?” said his brother.

But I knew what I meant, and what he meant, and with a seven-month bump you aren’t a mother-to-be, not really. You’re a mother already. You just don’t quite know who your child is.

In Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down”, one of the protagonists has a profoundly disabled son who has no ability to communicate. She invents a character for him – desires, personality, preferences in sports and music – and decorates his bedroom according to what that imagined character would want.

Question is, do we all do that? And doesn’t it hurt when children don’t turn out to be as we imagine them, even if there’s nothing actually wrong with the way they are? After all, we hate to have to change what we think.  The cliché of the child who doesn’t meet his parents’ expectations is so embedded in our culture that decades ago Monty Python satirised it by imagining the Working Class Playwright whose son appals him by going into mining. Sometimes, the mismatch between the real and imagined reality is so great that parents have only got two ways out of it. Either they can reject the reality of their parenthood – throwing the child out of the house with the traditional dismissal, “You’re no son of mine!” or, more commonly, refusing to believe the reality of the way the child has turned out – becoming another cliché, the mother of an unremarkable man who thinks her son is a genius.

But maybe it isn’t generally that way. Much as we like stasis, we expect our children to change. Therefore we ought to be able to deal with a gradual transition in terms of how we see them, from the imagined, in-utero version, to, hopefully, something more grounded in reality. Since babies are, after all, genuine people, I suppose they can’t help but to start to think and act for themselves. And that ought to be a good thing for us.

Perhaps, every time they reject a carefully-chosen toy in favour of a paper bag, or start to beam and nod their little heads in time to “Nights in White Satin” (insert your least favourite musical offering here) our children are actually helping us to come to terms, bit by bit, with the world being the way it is, and not the way we’d like it to be.




Being a Kidult


I was a kidult in my thirties. My God! I excelled at it. As I’ve said before, I spent at least some of my time cracking up. When I wasn’t doing so, I put the same sort of boundless passion into singing and related activities; I somehow managed to employ the relatively well-behaved worlds of folk and choral music as vehicles for boozing and staying up late in strange places. (And I’d never been all that much of a wild child.)

Needless to say, I was a terrible employee. As well as the odd day wiped out by hangover, there were a great many bolshie fights with people further up the pile than me. This was at a time when most of my colleagues were either caring for their children, or for their elderly parents. But this just made me worse. They, I reasoned, had laudible and unselfish motives to be good and avoid getting into trouble; with no such responsibilities, I was as badly-behaved as I liked. I somehow managed to hang onto my job… until I packed it in.

I dressed out of charity shops, cooked scrappy meals from random things in the fridge, and consoled myself for their shortcomings with chocolate biscuits and wine. My constant prayer, if I’d had one, might have been the traditional supplication: “Oh, Lord, make me good…but not yet.”

After all this, what better way to rehabilitate myself (in my own eyes, at least) than to become a Mum? To put myself, rather belatedly, in the next generation up, giving myself absolute responsibility for another person’s physical and emotional wellbeing? Wouldn’t I be a grown-up then? (And, hey, it’s an obvious manifestation of some Adult Pastimes.)

Perhaps it was when my mother was chasing me round a beach squealing “Come out of there, now!” that I realised it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

It turns out that a woman in her first pregnancy is in a curious in-between stage, part child and part adult. She is, as I’ve said, welcomed into the fold of mothers with many open, practised arms, but in that context she is a novice and is treated as such. Second-hand cots and baby clothes come packaged in advice and travellers’ tales. She is cossetted, sometimes almost symbolically. Are you cold? Are you comfortable? I think it’s time you had a rest.

Am I complaining? Good Lord, no. Occasionally it can be irritating. There have been one or two social occasions where I’ve felt that I’ve been irrevocably relegated to the Women-and-Children corner and nobody is ever going to talk to me about anything interesting EVER AGAIN; and, being a chronological adult, I reserve the right to disobey any recommendation that I disagree with. However, to be honest, I like the attention, and it’s generally such a manifestation of love and positivity that it’d be churlish to grumble.

Besides, being treated as a child in an entirely positive way gives you carte blanche to enjoy behaving like a child. Sandcastles. Ice-cream. Silly games. The tendency to reject things because they’re “so babyish”, which we develop when we’re really still babies, is, it turns out, as limiting as the adolescent tendency to reject things because they’re not cool. It’s completely normal, and perhaps we need to do it, but it’s liberating to cast it off.

So to return to being chased round the beach. We were on a family holiday on the west coast of Scotland. My nieces, who seem to be made of asbestos, had splashed into the sea, the previous day, grinning broadly as they immersed themselves in the bone-chilling waves. Out of bravado and a desire not to be outdone, I said I was going to do the same, and I put on my borrowed maternity tankini and waded out. Bloomin’ heck, it was cold.

I was up to my knees when my mother started shouting “Come out of there, now! That’s far enough!”

“What’s the matter?” I said, wading back (I did intend to go back in).

“The sea’s FULL of jellyfish! Just look at them!” And she tried to seize my arm and pull me back out.

“They’re harmless!” I said, skittering away from her and giggling, “they’re moon jellyfish. It says so in the Spotter’s Guide to the Seashore.” I doubled back. She was too quick; she managed to grab hold of me and, to avoid a full-on wrestle, I had to let her literally push me back up the beach away from the terrifying depths with their nameless, threatening creatures waiting therein, while the rest of the family laughed their heads off. It was much too cold to go in properly, anyway.

What, after all, is being childish? What is being a grown-up? One of the greatest things about growing older is that you realise how much you’re allowed to pick and choose the good bits from any situation you find yourself in. So – yes, not having got there yet, I’m led to believe that mothers can’t re-adopt all childish tendencies. Utter irresponsibility, for example, and – well, I was going to say, “wetting yourself” but I’m also led to believe you don’t always get the choice. Never mind. However, maternity gives you the latitude to embrace the positive childish side that you didn’t think you were allowed any more: being silly, and finding delight and amusement in simple things; allowing yourself to accept other people’s care and love. Living in the moment, even though, as an adult, you know it’s transitory. Maybe, it turns out, in order to look after a child, you’ve got to learn how to enjoy being one yourself.